Why I use positive, force-free training methods

by Katie Jesseph, Paws on the Plains dog training

Black and white photo of a white woman sitting under a tree with a black Standard Poodle on her lap.
Katie and Theo take a happy and well-earned break from training.

I use force-free methods for a number of reasons. Listed below you’ll find several quotes from prominent organizations, as well as studies that have been done to assess training methodology. In addition to these sources, I have a few specific reasons why I personally don’t use aversive methods with dogs. 

First, when you use aversive tools or methods you may create unintended associations that are even harder to deal with than the original behavior. I’ll give an example. An owner is out walking their adolescent German Shepherd and when he pulls, they give the dog a collar pop or shock. Unbeknownst to them, when they gave the correction the dog was also looking at a child. The dog now associate kids with corrections and builds a negative association. Instead of a dog who just pulls they now have a dog who begins to show signs of reactivity and/or fear towards kids.

Second, some people use punishment to deal with things like barking, lunging, or growling. The problem with this is you are punishing the warning signs. This can lead to a dog who stops giving a warning and goes straight to biting. For obvious reasons this is extremely dangerous for the family, the general public, and me as the trainer. 

Third, aversive tools and methods are simply unnecessary. There’s no indication that using aversive training methods results in better outcomes, faster learning, more predictable and consistent results, or improved response latency (readiness). Interestingly however, positive training methods are associated with all of those things.

Now for direct quotes and research findings:

  • In 2006, Guide Dogs for the Blind began crossing over from traditional training methods to clicker training (one type of positive reinforcement training). Before the transition only 45–50% of dogs successfully made it through the training program to be paired with a blind partner. After crossing over to clicker training, their graduation rate sky rocketed to 60–85% of dogs.
  • In July of 2017, Dr. Theresa DePorter, DVM published a study where she analyzed the outcomes dogs had, depending on the type of puppy class they took. She worked with a local dog trainer who was using aversive training methods in his puppy class. After one year, 38% of the puppies had been rehomed, surrendered, or euthanized. After 2 years, 60% of the puppies had been rehomed, surrendered or euthanized. Dr. DePorter then convinced the trainer to offer a positive-reinforcement class that she instructed him how to teach. After a year, 94% of the puppies were still in their homes. This was not a small study—it included 520 puppies.
  • In 2020, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior released a new position statement regarding humane dog training methods. I’ve listed a few key quotes from their statement below (emphasis added).

“In observational studies, dogs trained with aversive methods or tools showed stress-related behaviors during training, including tense body, lower body posture, lip licking, tail lowering, lifting front leg, panting, yawning, and yelping. Dogs trained with reward-based methods showed increased attentiveness to their owner.”

“Survey studies have shown an association between the use of aversive training methods and long-term behavior problems including aggressive behavior towards people and other dogs, and anxiety-related behaviors such as avoidance and excitability.”

“…dogs trained with reward-based methods have lower rates of behavior concerns compared with dogs trained with aversive methods.”

“Several studies show the effect of aversive training persists beyond the time of training. After dogs learned a cue taught using aversive training methods, they continued to show stress-related behaviors when the cue was presented, suggesting the cue itself had become aversive.”

“Reward-based training methods have been shown to be more effective than aversive methods. Multiple survey studies have shown higher obedience in dogs trained with reward-based methods.”

“Recall training is the most common reason dog owners use remote electronic shock collars. Even in the hands of experienced trainers, no difference in the effectiveness was found between remote electronic shock collars versus reward-based methods for teaching recall/stop chasing. In dogs with a history of off leash behavior problems, China et al (2020) found no difference in the proportion of disobeyed cues between dogs trained with electronic shock collars by manufacturer-nominated trainers compared with reward-based training. Dogs trained with reward-based methods in this study had a shorter delay before responding than the group trained with electronic shock collars.”

“Based on current scientific evidence, AVSAB recommends that only reward-based training methods are used for all dog training, including the treatment of behavior problems. Aversive training methods have a damaging effect on both animal welfare and the human-animal bond. There is no evidence that aversive methods are more effective than reward-based methods in any context. AVSAB therefore advises that aversive methods should not be used in animal training or for the treatment of behavior disorders.”

  • In 2008, UK researcher Dr. Emily Blackwell published a study that involved 192 dogs from 3 different countries. She classified training methods into three categories: positive reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative reinforcement. Owners who used only positive reinforcement training had dogs who were the least likely to display problem behaviors like attention-seeking, fear, and aggression. Owners who used punishment were more likely to have dogs who had trouble with both aggression and fearful behavior.
  • In 2004, Dr. Elly Hiby published a study based on interviews with 364 dog owners from Southampton and Cambridge. Training methods were grouped into three types: punishment-based, reward-based, and miscellaneous. Her research found that owners who used punishment, even if they also used rewards, were more likely to have dogs who exhibited problem behaviors. Owners who used only reward-based methods did not see any increase in problem behaviors but they did have significantly higher score for obedience.
  • In 2010, Dr. Christine Arhant published a study based on a questionnaire that was given to a random sample of registered dog-owners in Vienna. They received responses from 1,276 owners. The study looked at the behavior of small and large dogs and the effects that training methods had on them. Rather than categorize overall training styles the study instead looked at the frequency of positive reinforcement and punishment. Frequency of punishment was associated with more aggression and more excitability in both large dogs and small dogs but the relationship was stronger for small dogs. A higher frequency of rewards was linked to higher scores for obedience and lower scores for both aggression and anxiousness.

Resources & References

This article was adapted (with permission) from the original, at: https://pawsontheplains.com/2022/07/22/why-i-use-positive-force-free-training-methods